The Spirit leads — All sorts of shenanigans flourish under the guise of “deep spirituality.” One of the most frequent these days is the so-called “leading of the Spirit.” The Bible, of course, explicitly teaches that God’s children “are led by the Spirit of God” (Rom 8:14; Gal 5:18). Moreover, it contains examples of the Spirit’s leading God’s children. Israel as a nation was led by God in the wilderness in the form of a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to confront Satan’s temptations. Paul and his companions were led of the Holy Spirit by means of a vision, as many earlier prophets of God had been. The same Bible that reveals these miraculous means of the Spirit’s leading of God’s children also reveals that “God…hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son” (Heb 1:1, 2). Jesus Christ is the culmination of special divine revelation, and it is to him, his accredited spokesmen (Jn. 16:13), and the Old Testament Scriptures cited with such authority and so frequently that we must appeal for sure instructions regarding God’s will.
Good feelings — But a twentieth-century anti-intellectual, irrational Western culture1 finds relying on “inner feelings” and “divine signs” much more appealing than relying on a “cold, dusty, dead-orthodox” study of the Bible. Besides, studying the Bible carefully requires plain old unattractive hard work. It is much easier and “more spiritual” to rely on the supposed “leading of the Spirit” which often is nothing more than intuitional caprice. How the energetic preacher will wax eloquent in declaring in no uncertain terms that he has been “led of the Spirit” to preach a particular message (which frequently just happens to reinforce his pet peeves or pet practices), and to lead the congregation into exercising “great faith” by borrowing an exorbitant amount of money to “further the Lord’s work” (even when the borrowing places the congregation heavily in debt and potentially jeopardizes its testimony in the community)! Many times it appears as though his actions and decisions are not Spirit-led, but rather ego-fed.
Akin to the “Spirit-led” preacher is the “Spirit-led” layman (and laywoman, I can assure you). Any time he wants to change his mind or make some foolish decision, he justifies his actions by claiming, “The Spirit led me.” (After all, who can argue with the Holy Spirit?). The more obnoxious of the “Spirit-led” preachers and laymen are persuaded God has bestowed on them the gift of knowing His will for everybody else’s lives. And they are by no means reluctant to exercise the “gift.” They are constantly bombarding other believers with, “The Holy Spirit told me you need to do this or that.” The real rub comes, of course, when another “Spirit-led” Christian tells the unwary Christian that the Holy Spirit revealed to him that he himself should do just the opposite of what the initial “Spirit-led” Christian said!
Wesley and Whitefield — A striking example of the crass reliance on external agents of revelation to discern the will of God rather than on the Scriptures is nowhere more strikingly manifested than in George Whitefield’s famous letter to John Wesley exposing Wesley’s defective view of election. Note carefully the following two fascinating paragraphs from that letter:
I shall only make a few remarks upon your sermon, entitled Free-Grace. And before I enter upon the discourse itself, give me leave to take a little notice of what, in your preface, you term an indispensable obligation, to make it public to all the world. I must own, that I always thought you were quite mistaken upon that head. The case (you know) stands thus: When you were at Bristol, I think you received a letter from a private hand, charging you with not preaching the gospel, because you did not preach up election. Upon this you drew a lot: the answer was “preach and print”. I have often questioned, as I do now, whether in so doing, you did not tempt the Lord. A due exercise of religious prudence, without a lot, would have directed you in that matter. Besides, I never heard that you enquired of God, whether or not election was a gospel doctrine? But I fear, taking it for granted, it was not, you only enquired, whether you should be silent, or preach and print against it? However this be, the lot came out “preach and print”; accordingly you preached and printed against election. At my desire, you suppressed the publishing of the sermon whilst I was in England; but soon sent it into the world after my departure. O that you had kept it in! However, if that sermon was printed in answer to a lot, I am apt to think, one reason, why God should so suffer you to be deceived, was, that hereby a special obligation might be laid upon me, faithfully to declare the scripture doctrine of election, that thus the Lord might give me a fresh opportunity of seeing what was in my heart, and whether I would be true to his cause or not; as you could not but grant, he did once before, by giving you such another lot at Deal. The morning I sailed from Deal for Gibraltar, you arrived from Georgia. Instead of giving me an opportunity to converse with you, though the ship was not far off the shore; you drew a lot, and immediately set forwards to London. You left a letter behind you, in which were words to this effect: “When I saw God, by the wind which was carrying you out, brought me in, I asked counsel of God. His answer you have enclosed.” This was a piece of paper, in which were written these words. “Let him return to London.”
When I received this, I was somewhat surprised. Here was a good man telling me he had cast a lot, and that God would have me return to London. On the other hand, I knew my call was to Georgia, and that I had taken leave of London, and could not justly go from the soldiers, who were committed to my charge. I betook myself with a friend to prayer. That passage in the first book of Kings, chap. 13. was powerfully impressed upon my soul, where we are told, “That the Prophet was slain by a lion, that was tempted to go back, (contrary to God’s express order) upon another Prophet’s telling him God would have him do so”. I wrote you word that I could not return to London. We sailed immediately. Some months after, I received a letter from you at Georgia, wherein you wrote words to this effect: “Though God never before gave me a wrong lot, yet, perhaps, he suffered me to have such a lot at that time, to try what was in your heart.” I should never have published this private transaction to the world, did not the glory of God call me to it. It is plain you had a wrong lot given you here, and justly, because you tempted God in drawing one. And thus I believe it is in the present case. And if so, let not the children of God, who are mine and your intimate friends, and also advocates for universal redemption, think that doctrine true, because you preached it up in compliance with a lot given out from God.2
Notice that according to Whitefield it was on the strength of “a lot” that Wesley decided to “preach and print” his sermon “Free Grace.” Notice, further, that Whitefield alludes to an earlier situation in which Wesley followed the decision of another “lot” in suggesting Whitefield “return to London” when Whitefield’s ship was nearby off the coast .
What is most remarkable, however, is that, according to Whitefield, Wesley claimed that God had called him (Whitefield) to London, not to Georgia-that is, Wesley believed God had called Whitefield to do one thing while Whitefield himself believed God had called him to do another. Further, notice that Whitefield quotes Wesley as saying “Though God never before gave me a wrong lot, yet, perhaps, he suffered [permitted] me to have such a lot at that time, to try what was in your heart.” Note, moreover, that Whitefield invoked the story of the unfaithful older prophet in 1 Kings 13 as an indication that he should not follow the (false) direction of Wesley as the prophet of God, just as the young prophet in 1 Kings 13 should not have listened to the older prophet.
Dear old Arminian Wesley had the arrogance to suggest that God permitted him to be deceived in order to show Whitefield what the latter was really like.
Whitefield surely wasn’t going to listen to this nonsense from Wesley. For Whitefield claimed that God had called him to Georgia.
Now here’s the rub. Did God reveal his will to Wesley about Whitefield by Wesley’s lot, or was God leading Whitefield away from London? The answer is, Who knows, and who cares? We have been given the completed revelation by God through Jesus Christ and to his accredited representatives (Heb. 1:1-3). We don’t discern the will of God by “lots” or “impressions by the Spirit” or playing cards or by changes in the wind or signs from heaven. In this age of a completed canon, the Devil is as likely to control a lot as God is, although certainly the will of God is ultimately accomplished (Prov. 16:1, 9, 33).
Mixed signals — Now, Whitefield and Wesley ran into the same problems that Christians today run into when they refuse to rely on the express statements of Scripture and rely instead on external indications or internal feelings: what happens when one person claims God showed him one thing while another person claims that God showed him just the opposite?
A frequently odd result of these conflicts is a denial of the law of contradiction that goes something like this: Well, actually God was leading and speaking to both individuals in his own separate ways, even in contradiction, for he was “trying” one of them with his deception.
This sort of phenomenon is even imported into the correct interpretation of Scripture. D.A. Carson relates the following anecdote that demonstrates how “leading of the Spirit” lunacy transforms the Holy Spirit into an equivocal pagan-acting deity.
Almost twenty years ago, I rode in a car with a fellow believer who relayed to me what the Lord had “told” him that morning in his quiet time. He had been reading the KJV of Matthew; and I perceived that he had not only misunderstood the archaic English, but also that the KJV at that place had unwittingly misrepresented the Greek text. I gently suggested there might be another way to understand the passage and summarized what I thought the passage was saying. The brother dismissed my view as impossible on the grounds that the Holy Spirit, who does not lie, had told him the truth on the matter. Being young and bold, I pressed on with my explanation of grammar, context, and translation, but was brushed off by a reference to 1 Cor. 2:10b-15: spiritual things must be spiritually discerned-which left little doubt about my status. Genuinely intrigued, I asked this brother what he would say if I put forward my interpretation, not on the basis of grammar and text, but on the basis that the Lord himself had given me that interpretation I was advancing. He was silent a long time, and then concluded, “I guess that would mean the Spirit says the Bible means different things to different people.“3
We can expect such sloshy, pagan mosh-mosh from Christians who rely on external factors or internal impressions rather than the Holy Scripture and regenerated reason which God supplies.
“Great Men of God” — While attending college at one of the great havens of “spiritual leadership,” a friend of mine was informed that whenever he is in the office of the president (“a great man of God”), he should notice how “God’s man” looks at the ceiling, for God’s man is “receiving a direct message from God” in providing counsel to his subordinates.
Oh, pooh and bother. The Great Man of God probably can’t discern between flat-white ceiling tile and the will of God.
When the “Spirit-led” people bombard me with their supposed divine messages, I immediately confute them with the question, “How do you know your ‘leading of the Spirit’ isn’t just stomach gas?” As you might imagine, I often get raised eyebrows which imply, “How dare you be so irreverent!”
But it is the “Spirit-led” Christians who usually treat the Holy Spirit irreverently, not I. They care so little for the blessed Word he meticulously inspired and preserved that they refuse to consult it or mine its precious gold for instructions in life, choosing rather to circumvent concrete, black-and-white words from the Living God and choose rather to fly off into their own subjective fancies and fantasies that have nothing to do with the Spirit of God: The Holy Spirit told them to withdraw their membership from a Bible-believing church because the pastor preaches too long; the Holy Spirit told them to enter the preaching ministry even though they are obviously are not qualified; the Holy Spirit led them to engage in some practice that harms their brother or sister; and so forth.
Bob Jones, Sr., used to say, “God never leads any man to do anything contrary to his word.” To which I might add, God isn’t leading 90% of the “Spirit-led” Christians today to do 90% of what they claim he is leading them to do. And if he is, they’d have a Devil of a time proving it.
They need to quit being so “spiritual” and start being Scriptural.
1 Francis Schaeffer, The God Who Is There in Complete Works (Westchester, IL: Crossway, 1982) 1:5f.
2 George Whitefield, George Whitefield’s Journals (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1960), pp. 572, 573, emphasis supplied.
3 Carson, Exegetical Fallacies (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1984), p. 13, n. 2.